19 “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. 20 But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21 desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 So it was that the beggar died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.24 “Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ 27 “Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’ ” (Luke16:19-31NKJV)
Remarkably, this is effectively the only account we have in Scripture of experience in the afterlife: the account of the rich man and Lazarus, the text of which requires careful attention. It is generally taken to be a parable, although it us unusual for a person to be named (i.e. Lazarus) in such, so many, including the medieval Church, believe Jesus to be referring to real individuals. Although often utilized as such, the narrative is referring neither to Heaven nor Hell but to Hades, the place of the dead. That is an intermediate state between death and resurrection in which, according to Luke’s interpretation of Jesus’ teaching, disembodied spirits are nevertheless conscious and aware of either pain or comfort. They also clearly retain a memory of their past life (“Son, remember that in your lifetime” etc.)
Note carefully, the only stated criterion distinguishing these two men was that one had had a life of ease and comfort whilst the other had been poor and wretched (Lk16:25). It may be deduced (from vv27-31) that the rich man was suffering because of the way he had utilized his wealth; living wantonly whilst failing to show care and compassion for miserable beggars like Lazarus (with whom Jesus personally identifies – Mt25:45), yet no reason is given at all why Lazarus should be comforted after his death other than that he had experienced a life of poverty and sickness (Lk16:25). The redistributive and compensatory aspects of judgement at death are also emphasized in the letter of James who exhorts the oppressive rich to weep and howl for the miseries that are to come upon them (Ja5:1KJV). It is clear from subsequent verses that James is referring to the materially wealthy who obtained their wealth by defrauding and exploiting of the poor. James (as ever) is reflecting the teaching of Christ, who had other words of warning for the well-to-do:
Alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now. Alas for you who have plenty to eat now: you shall go hungry. Alas for you who are laughing now: you shall mourn and weep (Lk6:24,25).
I now understand this to be partly a question of redistributive justice but that it also relates to the role and necessity of human suffering (salting) explained in the theodicy (chapter seven of my book).
The Law and the Prophets
In pleading for Lazarus to be raised from the dead so as to warn the his five brothers of their impending doom if they do not change their ways, Abraham chides the rich man that as Jews his brothers should be acquainted with “Moses and the Prophets”, an underlying principle of which being the need to care for the needy – loving one’s neighbour as oneself. Those who do not believe that to be at the Law’s heart should take heed to the apostle Paul: “The entire Law is fulfilled in keeping this one command “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal5:14). For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, they are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Rom13:9)
But in a sense who needs the Law to determine these matters? – they are intuitive to every human heart. For as hinted at above and suggested within this parable, the wellbeing of the human spirit when the body dies is not determined by one’s religion or lack of it but by one’s dealings with one’s fellows (likewise the final judgement passage in Matthew25 – note religious faith is nowhere mentioned). However, religious faith and a living relationship with Jesus Christ certainly plays a part in the soul’s eternal destiny, in particular who are to be the co-inheritors with the Lord of Glory at the resurrection of the dead? “Fellowship of the Secret”* explains all, or at least as much as Scripture has revealed.
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